Profs Bumble Into Big Legal Trouble After Election Experiment Goes Way Wrong

mailer political science
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

Political scientists from two of the nation’s most highly respected universities, usually impartial observers of political firestorms, now find themselves at the center of an electoral drama with tens of thousands of dollars and the election of two state supreme court justices at stake.

Their research experiment, which involved sending official-looking flyers to 100,000 Montana voters just weeks before Election Day, is now the subject of an official state inquiry that could lead to substantial fines against them or their schools. Their peers in the field have ripped their social science experiment as a “misjudgment” or — stronger still — “malpractice.”

What went so wrong?

Last Thursday, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices started receiving complaints from voters who had received an election mailer (see below) bearing the state seal and describing the ideological standing of non-partisan candidates for the Montana Supreme Court. The fine print said that it had been sent by researchers from Dartmouth College and Stanford University, part of their research into voter participation. But that wasn’t satisfactory for the voters who received the flyers or the state officials to whom they complained.

Jonathan Motl, the state commissioner, told TPM that the flyer has elicited the most complaints that his office has seen this election cycle. It describes the candidates in two Montana Supreme Court elections — who are supposed to be non-partisan — on an ideological scale. The candidates are placed on a line graph that compares them to President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

It is titled as a “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide” with the state of Montana seal featured prominently. Only the fine print identifies the mailer as part of a research project.

“This particular flyer triggered such a strong reaction among Montanans for two reasons. No. 1, it used the state seal. Just based on the people I’ve talked to, that was strongly offensive. They didn’t like their state seal being appropriated,” Motl said. “The second thing that’s confusing about it is the intimation that it serves a research purpose. Because in the judgment of the people looking at it, it doesn’t serve a research purpose, it serves a political purpose.”

Montana Judicial Election Mailer by tpmdocs

Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, in her individual capacity as a voter, filed a formal complaint (see below) about the flyer Friday to Motl. The complaint cited four state statutes that might have been violated, including “impersonation of a state servant.” Motl’s office will now conduct an official investigation and decide if there are grounds to show there was a campaign practice violation. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) also sent a letter to the school presidents last week, referring to the flyer as “voter manipulation.”

If Motl’s office decides there is, he said, they will consult with a county attorney and then either settle with the universities or move forward with a civil case. The usual settlement for this kind of case is a monetary fine and an official apology. Motl ballparked that the researchers had spent $80,000 on the project, since the flyer was mailed to 100,000 Montana voters, and offered that figure as a starting point for a potential “substantial” settlement.

“The primary question is going to be how the heck did they get the state seal on the thing?” Motl said. “What is the possible academic reason to misrepresent the document as an official state document?”

That is one of the questions puzzling other academics in the field asked about the research project — and has the universities scrambling to figure out what happened.

As it turns out, the experiment was intended to measure whether receiving additional information about the candidates affected voter participation. In this case, the additional information was about the ideological leanings of the candidates for Montana Supreme Court, based on their past political contributions and other publicly available information. The study was funded as part of a $250,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation, which Stanford matched with $100,000, according to the university.

The researchers involved, according to Stanford, are Kyle Dropp, assistant professor of government at Dartmouth; Adam Bonica, assistant professor of political science at Stanford; and Jonathan Rodden, a professor of political science at Stanford. None returned TPM’s direct requests for comment. Lisa Lapin, a spokesperson for Stanford, told TPM that faculty would not be made available for comments. The university is launching its own inquiry into the matter.

“This is a circumstance we take very seriously,” Lapin said in a statement. “We share concerns that the mailers have created confusion among voters, and we sincerely apologize to those voters as well as the office of the Secretary of State.”

According to a description provided by Stanford, the research was intended “to compare voter participation levels in precincts that receive the additional information with voter participation in precincts that do not.” It included 100,000 mailers sent throughout Montana, 66,000 mailers sent in September in one New Hampshire congressional district, and 143,000 mailers sent to two congressional districts in California. There have not been reports of similar complaints in California or New Hampshire, and TPM could not reach state officials for comment.

Justin Anderson, a spokesperson for Dartmouth, told TPM that the study “was “not intended to favor any particular candidate, party, or agenda, nor is it designed to influence the outcome of any race.”

“We understand that the presence of the Montana state seal caused confusion about the origin and purpose of the materials used in that state,” Anderson said in an emailed statement. “We apologize if it was not clear that the intention of the mailing was entirely scholarly.”

Regardless, other political scientists consulted by TPM described the study as “malpractice” and “improper and unethical” because, by introducing the ideological position of non-partisan candidates, the flyers could — intentionally or not — influence the results of the elections.

“It’s basically political science malpractice. That’s what I’d call it,” Jennifer Lawless, professor of government at American University in Washington, D.C., told TPM. “When you’re going to engage in an experiment as a political scientist, I think you have a responsibility not to affect election outcomes, let alone break the law.”

“When you can conduct an experiment in a real-world setting or amidst a campaign, it does add generalizability and real-world components to your results,” she continued. “That said, there is a difference between trying to have generalizable results and playing electoral god.”

“This strikes me as a lapse in judgment. If the election’s actually happening, they’re intervening in it,” Theda Skocpol, a political scientist at Harvard University, told TPM, though she cautioned that state authorities “ought to take a deep breath” before pursuing legal action.

Jeffrey Tulis, associate professor of government at the University of Texas-Austin, told TPM in an email after being alerted to the study: “My initial reaction is that this quasi-experiment is improper and unethical.”

That opinion was not universally shared, however. A source familiar with the research, but not involved, defended the researchers to TPM.

“I would say, just looking at the country at large, is the great threat to the integrity of our process good social science or is it the Koch brothers?” the source, who was not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said. “You’ve got to be courageous about this. We need to know how to improve our politics and how to renovate it. We can’t just be playing Mickey Mouse games in the classrooms. We’ve got to be out there in the political world trying stuff.”

Montana Election Mailer Complaint by tpmdocs

The remaining outstanding question is whether the study was approved by review boards at each university — and if so, why, given the concerns now being raised.

Stanford said in its own description of the study that “it was reviewed and approved to go forward by the Dartmouth Institutional Review Board.” Lapin, the Stanford spokesperson, told TPM in an email that Stanford did not review the study. Anderson, the Dartmouth spokesperson, declined to comment on TPM’s follow-up questions about the study’s approval.

“Approval” in the world of academic review boards can mean a lot of things, Lise Dobrin, an anthropology professor at the University of Virginia who serves on that school’s board, told TPM and studies can be exempted if personal information is not a part of the study. Based on the publicly available information, Dobrin said she could not believe that the Dartmouth board had simply signed off on the study, especially since its review would have included an examination of the now-controversial flyer.

“The idea that you could be influencing voters as a part of your study, I think that would be looked at very carefully,” she said. “I can’t believe that this actually happened.”

Latest DC
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: